Think of it as the “Good News Bears.” This sweet, sometimes sugary film is based on a real-life Little League team from Monterrey, Mexico who came to the United States to play in the Little League World Series of 1957 and not only won every match but, well, you saw the title.
Jake T. Austin of “Wizards of Waverly Place” plays the baseball-mad Angel, who lives with his parents in a desperately poor community. He and his friends love to hear about pro games and players in America. They want to learn how to play but they do not even have a baseball, much less a playing field or a coach.
Angel finds a ball and then he finds a coach in Cesar Faz (Clifton Collins, Jr.), a factory worker who once worked with the St. Louis Cardinals. The boys make their own field. With the help of Coach Faz and inspiration from Padre Estaban (Cheech Marin, adding another to his list of screen roles as a priest), the boys become a team. When they get a chance to play in the Little League World Series, they each take only one change of underwear, carried in a brown paper bag. First, it’s all they have. But second, it never occurs to them that they will win, so they assume they will be home after the first game.
But they win. And they win again. A woman reporter (Emilie de Ravin, channeling all the girl reporter actresses of the 1930’s newspaper movies) reluctantly accepts the assignment, then is captivated by the courage and dedication of the team. As they rise through the ranks, they encounter racism, xenophobia, and just plain old hostility. But they hold on to their ideals — including refusing to play unless they can be led in prayer first (we find out why they are so partial to Psalm 108. They get help from some unexpected sources: a sympathetic diner owner (Frances Farmer), the reporter and a groundskeeper who once played in the Negro Leagues (a fine Louis Gossett, Jr.). And they keep winning.
It has a retro feel that has nothing to do with its 1957 setting, but like its pint-sized team (inches smaller and pounds lighter than its opponents), the movie has so much heart that it is easy to root for. Collins and Marin are engaging enough to give the predictable and light-weight script a little extra heft. If “The Perfect Game” is not the perfect movie, it is an enjoyable little fable that will be fun for Little Leaguers and their families.
It feels like the world should come to a stop when someone dies, but unfortunately, it does not. And it feels like the confrontation with the eternal and the shock of grief should somehow make everyone behave, but unfortunately, it does not.
Fortunately, that can be funny, especially when it is happening to someone else. “Death at a Funeral” is a wild, door-slamming, poop-on-the-face, naked-guy-on-the-roof farce set at the funeral of a man whose family did not know him quite as well as they thought. Trying to stay on top of things is the oldest son of the dearly departed, Aaron (Chris Rock), a tax accountant and would-be novelist jealous of his best-selling author brother Ryan (Martin Lawrence). The funeral is at the home that Aaron shares with his wife (Regina Hall) and mother (Loretta Devine). Arriving for the funeral are Aaron’s cousin Elaine (Zoe Saldana of “Avatar”) and her nervous fiance Oscar (James Marsden) and brother Jeff (Columbus Short), family friends Derek (Luke Wilson) and Norman (Tracey Morgan), and cantankerous uncle Russell (Danny Glover). Meanwhile, the wrong body has been delivered by mistake and there is a man at the funeral no one knows, who keeps asking to talk to Aaron about something important.
It all moves along briskly and the juxtaposition of outrageous farce with the most serious of occasions sharpens what would otherwise be pedestrian slapstick. By far the most interesting aspect of the movie is that it is an almost shot-for-shot remake of a British film by the same name, made just three years ago. The two films even share one of the lead actors, Peter Dinklage as the interloper whose relationship with the deceased — and request for payment to keep that relationship quiet — creates a lot of upheaval. Taking a farce that appeared to rely on the understated, restrained British culture in the face of outlandish situations and transplanting it to a black family in Los Angeles demonstrates how much we bring our own expectations to a film.
Director Neil LaBute, best known for searing, disturbing, often-misogynistic plays and movies (“The Shape of Things,” “Your Friends and Neighbors”) lets his able cast run with the material. Marsden is particularly good as the nervous fiance who takes what he thinks is Valium to relax and ends up alternately — and simultaneously — ecstatic, terrified, and utterly dejected. Rock, often uncomfortable on screen, finds some dignity as well as humor in a mostly straight role. Saldana, trim as a greyhound in her LBD, has some great moments as she reassures her frantic fiance and tells off her father, brother, and would-be boyfriend. Hall is delicious as always as a devoted wife who really, really wants a baby — someone needs to give her a starring role. And Dinklage is simply a hoot, one of the most able actors in films today.
A preview of next week’s all-Madonna episode of “Glee” — with Sue Sylvester starring in “Vogue!”
One thing I especially love about this show is is agnosticism about music — it makes no distinction between classic rock (“Somebody to Love”), Broadway show tunes (“Defying Gravity”), 60’s pop (“Don’t Make Me Over”), or current hits (“My Life Would Suck Without You”). I love the mash-up episodes, combining songs like “Smile” (Lily Allen) with “Smile” (composed some 80 years earlier by Charlie Chaplin). It is a hallmark of adolescence to be exclusionary and to define people by what they like, with absolute and rigid categories for indie, metal, emo, and especially NOW vs. THEN. So I am very happy to see this show not just introduce its audience to music they may have thought of as outside their sphere but to the very idea of openness to great songs, wherever they come from.
I Remember Better When I Paint: Treating Alzheimer’s through the Creative Arts is a documentary about the way that the arts can reach people struggling with severe dementia and other memory impairments. It is a touching and inspiring film that should remind us all of the power of art — and love — and of the humanity that persists even when the more superficial manifestations of daily communication fail. The film will be shown on some PBS stations (check local listings) and is available on DVD.